Seyla Benhabib (born September 9, 1950) is a Turkish-American philosopher. She is Eugene Mayer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University, and director of the program in Ethics, Politics, and Economics, and a well-known contemporary philosopher. She is the author of several books, most notably about the philosophers Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas. Benhabib is well known for combining critical theory with feminist theory.
Born in Istanbul, Benhabib was educated at English language schools in Istanbul. She received a B.A. from the American College for Girls in Istanbul in 1970. She traces her family history back to the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain on the "second reconquista." She has cited Istanbul as reminiscent of "big cosmopolitan centers of, in a way, the old Europe." She left for the United States in 1970. She received a B.A. from Brandeis University in 1972 and a Ph.D. from Yale in 1977.
Prior to arriving at Yale, Benhabib taught in the departments of philosophy at Boston University, SUNY Stony Brook, the New School for Social Research, and the Department of Government at Harvard University. She also held the Spinoza Chair of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam in 2000. She is married to well-known author and journalist Jim Sleeper, who is currently also a political-science lecturer at Yale. She also serves on the editorial advisory board for the Ethics & International Affairs. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995. In the 2008-2009 academic year, she was a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin).
In 2012 she was awarded the Dr. Leopold-Lucas Prize by the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen in recognition of outstanding achievement in the field of theology, intellectual history, historical research and philosophy, as well as the commitment to international understanding and tolerance. She received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Georgetown University in May 2014.
Democratic theorists advocate discussion within cultures and support social change. Benhabib is a democratic theorist who does not believe in the purity of cultures; she thinks of them as formed through dialogues with other cultures. Human cultures are, according to Benhabib, the constant change of imaginary boundaries. They influence each other and sometimes radicalize or conform as a reaction on other cultures. Benhabib argues that in democratic theory it is assumed that every single person should be able to determine their own life. She argues that pluralism, the existence of fundamentally different cultures, is compatible with cosmopolitanism, if three conditions are fulfilled. These conditions are:
- Egalitarian reciprocity: Members of minorities must have equal civil, political, economic and cultural rights as the majority.
- Voluntary self-ascription: When a person is born, it should not be expected that he or she will automatically be a member of a particular religion or culture. The state should not let groups define the lives of individuals. Members of a society have the right to express themselves and it is desirable that adult individuals be asked whether they choose to continue membership in their community.
- Freedom of exit and association: Every individual must be able to exit their group. When group members marry someone from another group, they have the right to be a member. Accommodations must be found for inter-group marriages and the resulting children.
It is contested whether cultural diversity and democratic equality can co-exist. Many cultures are not compatible with one or more of the three given conditions. For example, the first condition is violated within several cultures, such as the Kurds in Turkey or the Roma in Eastern Europe. Every nation state has groups that are not accepted by the majority. Some governments do nothing to stop discrimination against minorities. The second and third condition are also problematic. Thus, at present there seems to be no examples of states practicing a perfect version of Benhabib's system of mixing pluralism with cosmopolitanism. This does, of course, not rule out that it is possible, nor that it is a societal goal worth striving for.
Benhabib prefers a world with porous borders. She argues that political boundaries define some as members, but lock others out. She has written: "I think it is possible to have an empire without borders; I don’t think it is possible to have a democracy without borders."
More and more people live in countries which are not their own, as state sovereignty is not as strong as in the past. Benhabib argues that somebody who is stateless is seen as an outcast and is in a way rightless. Current policy still sees national borders as a means to keep out strangers.
Benhabib's cosmopolitan view is inspired by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant’s Perpetual peace concerns three articles which together are key to creating perpetual peace. In the third article Kant says that the rights of world citizens shall be limited to the right of universal hospitality. In Kant's view, every single person has the right to go wherever they like without fear of hostility from their hosts.
Benhabib takes this right as a starting point which resulted in her thoughts about migration and refugee problems. Benhabib goes further than Kant, arguing that the human right of hospitality should not apply to a single visit, but in some cases to long-term stays. For example, a country shouldn't send a refugee back when it is not sure whether they are safe in the country of origin. Nations should have obligations to exiles and refugees, these obligations are different from the obligations to immigrants.
- Dignity in Adversity: Human Rights in Troubled Times, (2011)
- Politics in Dark Times: Encounters with Hannah Arendt, (2010)
- Another Cosmopolitanism (Oxford University Press, 2006)
- The Rights of Others (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
- The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003)
- The Claims of Culture (Princeton University Press, 2002)
- Democracy and Difference (Princeton University Press, 1996)
- Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics (Routledge, 1992)
- Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange (with Judith Butler, Nancy Fraser, and Drucilla Cornell, 1994) ISBN 9780415910866
- Critique, Norm and Utopia. A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory (Columbia University Press, 1986)
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